Toronto
5 min

Blame mom, not Jesus

Queers aren't the only people ex-gays are insulting

HOMOPHOBIA MAKES BABY JESUS CRY. About 40 protesters picketed Focus On The Family's Love Won Out conference last month. Credit: Xtra files

Stepping to the front of the stage of Scarborough’s Churchill Heights Baptist Church, Mike Haley pulls up his pant leg to show us his left calf. When he was actively homosexual, Haley was sexually attracted to men who had nice legs.



Since then, he’s found Jesus. Haley, married to a woman and father of two, still looks longingly at nice male legs, but he’s changed how he thinks about it. Straight leg-gawking is also a sin, but apparently more palatable to God than gay leg lust.



“I look at the big legs and I deal with the sin of envy, thinking I’ll never have legs like that,” says Haley, star ex-gay of the Focus On The Family (FOTF) road show that attracted close to 1,000 people from across Canada and the US Sep 20.



With slick, seamless packaging – a photocopied Toronto agenda is stuck into the 76-page glossy-covered conference book – the FOTF Love Won Out conference represents the newest version of the US religious right’s campaign to assert the inferiority of gay and lesbian life. In 23 conferences since 1998, Love Won Out has reached more than 20,000.



Though it’s a long day’s parade of ex-gays and pseudo-experts, the thesis is easily summarized. Homosexuality is caused by family dynamics in childhood. What can be caused by dynamics can be undone by dynamics. And why would you want to undo a person’s sexual orientation? Because God says so. And, if that’s not good enough for you, because homosexuals can’t love, they just desire.



It takes a pretty big house of cards to encompass all this psycho-religious bafflegab. But looking around at the attendees, I can smell the desperation.



***

“Are you with the conference?” asks a man in his 50s who is walking across the church parking lot after the lunch break.



“I’m, um… attending.” I wonder if my splashy shirt gives me away. “What do you think of it all?”



“I’m hearing things I never heard before,” he says.



“Things?”



“Things I never heard before.”



“In a good or a bad way?” I ask vaguely, having already guessed wrong about two women I took to be Jesus freaks who turned out to be lesbian theology students from Iowa.



“It can only be a good way,” he replies, smiles and politely waves me through the door.



This exchange is typical of most of the conversations I overhear. Compared to any other Christian event I’ve attended, Love Won Out attendees are tight-lipped. Though full of smiles, participants look at each other suspiciously, trying to guess at motivations. Does anyone really want to be caught browsing the book A Parent’s Guide To Preventing Homosexuality? It’s like running into your pastor coming out of an adult video peep-show. There are no name tags.



Though I do see effeminate men cuddling their wives, I figure that most attendees are straight, Christian people who want to know how to deal with someone they know who is gay or lesbian. They’re mostly older, mostly white and mostly quiet. In an anti-homophobia educational video for teachers – presented during an America’s Funniest Home Videos-style segment called Why Is What They’re Teaching So Dangerous? – a teacher declares that Christian parents need to accept other children who have same-sex parents. “The way that it is is what it is,” she says in a moment of mangled diction. Heads all over the room shake, exasperated tongues cluck. Sweet Jesus, those homosexuals are so… inarticulate. And that’s as nasty as it gets.



***

If you accept that anyone who pays $60 to attend an anti-gay conference is pretty hardcore already, Love Won Out has some positive messages. Be a loving family. Give your children lots of love. Show physical affection. (Catch phrase of the day: “If you don’t hug your sons, some other man will.”) Don’t beat up gay people or call them names. Don’t make up vicious lies about them. Ex-gay speaker Joe Dallas, in the best baritone I’ve heard since Johnny Cash, tells the conference that in the 1970s he saw a pamphlet about how gay men did “unspeakable” sexual things.



“I was a promiscuous gay man, but I learned more about sex from that Christian brochure,” Dallas says. “We talk a lot about ‘Hate the sin, love the sinner.’ I think we’ve got the hate part down.”



The new approach is “hand up, hand out.” That means one hand up to the behaviour (don’t go to same-sex weddings) but one hand out to help a person in need (allow gay and lesbian people to attend church, even if they’re still engaged in homosexuality).



Unfortunately, it’s clear that any crowd that shakes its collective head in despair every time Will And Grace is mentioned knows how to read between the lines of, “There is no such thing as a homosexual… homosexuality is not our intrinsic nature. It violates natural law.”



It amounts to a kinder, gentler rebranding of anti-gay rhetoric. Disassociate yourself from Rev Fred Phelps and his Godhatesfags.com. During one of the only Canada-specific workshops, Derek Rogusky, vice-president of FOTF Canada, has suggestions on how parents can show concern about gay-positive messages in the classroom. When you visit a principal, “Bring a group of people with you so you don’t look like wingnut.” Avoid clichés like “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Don’t quote scripture.



“If you can do something that doesn’t cause embarrassment to anyone, that’s the way to do it,” Rogusky tells us. The room fills with the “ahs” of people who must have at some time embarrassed others in the line of duty.



***

It’s no coincidence that most ex-gays were raised fundamentalist Christian. Anything they do, they do it with fervor and I feel sorry for the choices they feel they have to make.



At the peak of his 12-year gay life, Haley says he was an emotionally messed-up, drug-addicted, sex-obsessed, shallow, vain hustler who had cut himself off from his family because he was so ashamed. Who wouldn’t want a change of pace?



Another ex-gay speaker Melissa Fryrear, claims she read Leviticus’ condemnation of male homosexuality when she was 13 and felt doomed to hell. For her, lesbianism was a symbol of her separation from her Baptist beliefs. She’s not a lesbian anymore but she’s not involved with men, either. She’s merely “holy.”



Faced with extremism in your own behaviour, I can imagine that the love of Jesus seems like a safe choice. (The scheduled keynote speaker was ex-gay John Paulk. Discovered in a gay bar in 2000, he was quietly removed from the line-up.)



So my problem with Love Won Out is not its message to gay and lesbian people. Setting aside issues of genetics and natural order and God’s word, I’m sure I can force myself to become sexually aroused by photocopiers if I’m desperate enough. Fortunately, there’s no reason for most lesbian and gay people to be desperate. My problem is the message to parents: It’s your fault. No matter how many times speakers tell attendees, “We’re not blaming you,” or “You shouldn’t feel guilty,” it’s clear that, in this world order, bad parents make kids gay.



In fact, it’s hard to believe there are any straight women left, considering the purported causes of lesbianism: An emotionally distant mother or a my-best-friend mother, a weak and ineffective mother or a domineering mother. Or, even if you’re really a good mother, having your daughter merely perceive you as fitting one of these categories. Looking at your child wrong, it seems, can turn her queer.



And that’s the tragedy. Faced with a queeny eight-year-old or a tomboy who won’t wear skirts, parents are led to believe that sexual orientation is more open to interpretation than scripture.



Can there be any joy in worshipping a God unfeeling enough to throw you at the mercy of witchdoctors and allegedly straight leg-gawkers? If there is, I didn’t see it at Love Won Out. Poor us? Poor them.